Image: Creative Commons

Image: Creative Commons

Just when you thought it was safe to drink the water…

Last year, Californians were sickened and appalled to learn that nine wastewater injection wells were pumping fracking waste into protected water sources in Kern County. This month, the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that not only have oil companies been dumping wastewater into clean drinking water sources for years, they’ve been doing it with state regulators’ approval.

Documents obtained by the Chronicle show that the oil industry has drilled 1,717 wastewater injection wells into clean aquifers throughout the state, primarily in Kern County. Another 253 injection wells were drilled into aquifers that could have been usable with appropriate treatment, and 171 wells were drilled into aquifers that were completely clean.

State officials have said that initial tests of nearby drinking wells show no signs of contamination, but the public outrage stems largely from the fact that California is now in its fourth year of drought and just coming off one of the driest Januaries (normally the peak of the wet season) in recorded history. The state’s dwindling aquifers have forced 28 communities to revolve in and out of water crises; the cost of honey and other produce has shot up due to less available irrigation; and in the Central Valley, residents are pumping so much groundwater that the land is actually sinking.

To learn that wastewater is being dumped into water sources that the state may soon need – and with the state’s own approval – is a bitter pill to swallow. Chemicals inside the wastewater produced from oil and gas drilling can contain such toxins as arsenic, heavy metals, radioactive material and benzene, a known cancer-causing agent.

How Did This Happen?

In 1983, the EPA gave California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources the authority to enforce the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Within the agreement signed by the EPA, aquifers exempted from this enforcement were listed by name; the remaining aquifers would be where oil companies could inject wastewater after obtaining a permit from the Division (pumping industrial waste underground is considered the safest method of disposal).

However, it turns out that there were two signed copies of the EPA’s signed agreement, one of which is missing 11 exempted aquifers. These aquifers were considered fair game to the oil industry and to California. Additionally, whole aquifers were also considered approved for use, even when the signed agreement only allowed for partial use by the oil industry.

In some cases, the state issued injection permits for aquifers that were never exempted by the EPA at all.

A map of California's wastewater injection wells. (Image Credit: John Blanchard / The Chronicle)

A map of California’s wastewater injection wells. (Image Credit: John Blanchard / The Chronicle)

“It is shocking,” said Patrick Sullivan, a spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It is beyond belief.”

Sullivan has said that, despite officials’ reports that no contamination has been detected in drinking water sources, these areas’ massive populations mean millions of people are potentially at risk.

Taking Action

The Center for Biological Diversity has called on the EPA to shut down these injection wells.

“In the midst of an unprecedented drought and when so many Californians lack access to safe, clean drinking water, it is outrageous to allow contamination of drinking and irrigation water to continue,” the Center writes. “It is never acceptable to allow the contamination of drinking and irrigation water with industrial wastewater.”

The EPA has given California until February 6 to explain how it will manage this mess before the agency seizes control of its well regulation.

“If there are wells having a direct impact on drinking water, we need to shut them down now,” said Jared Blumenfeld, regional adminstrator for the EPA. “Safe drinking water is only going to become more in demand.”

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One Response

  1. TJ says:


    HOW? The aquifers were just left out of the signed agreement? It just sort of…happened?

    Mind blown in 3, 2….

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